Recognizing Native American Heritage Month in November

By Taja Blackhorn, Department of Labor and Industries and Member of the Kahodasi People

Pictured Above: Members from four Alaskan Tribes, Photo from US Bureau of Indian Affairs

November is Native American Heritage Month

Beginning in 1990, November was designated Native American Heritage Month, a time to pay tribute of the rich history and culture of the American Indian tribes.

All the verbiage surrounding that initial recognition seemed to place Indigenous people and Indigenous culture into a past tense.  

But we are still here

November is a wonderful time to recognize, honor, and celebrate Indigenous peoples and identities past, present, and future.

In order to properly respect and honor the original inhabitants, it is important to learn about the Indigenous People whose land this is.

Because you don’t know what you don’t know

Washington state alone encompasses the traditional homelands/ancestral lands of 29 federally recognized indigenous tribes as well as many unrecognized indigenous communities.

In addition to the Indigenous peoples whose traditional homelands exist within the modern state boundaries, numerous indigenous peoples of the Americas have made Washington state their home.

Learn more about Washington State Tribes

Because you don’t know what you don’t know

  • There is no pan-Indian culture. There are many Indigenous peoples each with our own language, customs, and lifeways
  • We are still battling against of 550 years of genocide, discrimination, erasure of our languages/cultures/beliefs.
  • We are still working on decolonizing how we are seen, both through internal and external lenses. 
  • When it comes to urban Indians [from federally or non-federally recognized tribes] we often exist outside the government-to-government power structure.
  • One way to think of Indigenous identity is one is Sovereign and one is Racial/Ethnic. Both are Indigenous.

November is also National Veterans and Military Families Month

Did You Know?

  • 18.6% of the American Indian & Alaskan Native population has served in the post-9/11 period
    • and at higher percentage than veterans of other minorities at 18.6% vs. 14%.
  • There are currently 31,000 American Indian & Alaskan Natives on active duty
  • There are currently 140,000 living American Indian & Alaskan Native Veterans and 11.5% are women

https://americanindian.si.edu/nnavm/heroes/

During World War I:

Although Native Americans were not considered to be US Citizens until 1924, they were required to register for the draft during WW I

 6,500 Native men were drafted, and about 5,000 more enlisted, eager to carry on the warrior traditions of their tribes.

  • 10,000+ in the Army
  • 2,000+ in the Navy
  • 14 American Indian women served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.

As their tradition dictated the Onondaga and Oneida Nations declared war against Germany, so they could enter battle honorably

Choctaw and Cherokee Code Talkers

The Choctaw code talkers were a group of Choctaw Indians from Oklahoma who pioneered the use of Native American languages as military code.

Photo from US Army Archives

For many years, the code talkers’ work remained classified. Then on June 18, 2002, Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act to recognize the important part that these Soldiers played in “performing highly successful communications operations of a unique type that greatly assisted in saving countless lives and in hastening the end of World War I and World War II.” The act further states that the code talkers operated “under some of the heaviest combat action … around the clock to provide information … such as the location of enemy troops and the number of enemy guns.”

Congress recognized the remarkableness of the code talkers’ achievements, despite societal discrimination against them. The act states that at “… a time when Indians were discouraged from practicing their native culture, a few brave men used their cultural heritage, their language, to help change the course of history.”

https://www.army.mil/americanindians/code_talkers.html

During World War II:

Did You Know?

An estimated 44,000 Native Americans served in the United States military during World War II

  • 21,767 in the Army
  • 1,910 in the Navy
  • 874 in the Marines
  • 121 in the Coast Guard
  • Several hundred Native American women served as Nurses

These three are members of the U.S. Marine Corps. They are [left to right] Minnie Spotted Wolf of the Blackfeet, Celia Mix, Potawatomi, and Violet Eastman, Chippewa.

Photo from US Marine Corps Archive

Navajo Code Talkers of World War II

Photo gallery 1. Collage of Navajo Code Talkers from World War II 2. Photo of last of the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers. Photo from Britanica.com

They devised a hundred-word dictionary of military terms, including ‘‘two-star chief ’’ for major general, ‘‘eagle’’ for colonel, ‘‘turtle’’ for tank, ‘‘sewing machine’’ for machine gun, and ‘‘pregnant airplane’’ for bomber. The main beneficiary of the code talkers’ unique ability was the Fourth Infantry Division, which assigned two Comanche soldiers to each regiment with others at division headquarters. Subsequently other code talkers joined the army program from the Chippewa, Fox, Hopi, Oneida, and Sac tribes.

The last of the original 29 Navajo code talkers who developed the code, Chester Nez, died on June 4, 2014. Three of the last nine Navajo code talkers used in the military died in 2019: Alfred K. Newman, died on January 13, 2019, at the age of 94. On May 10, 2019, Fleming Begaye Sr., died at the age of 97.

Keeping Traditions Alive During a Pandemic

Social Distance Powwow

In the time of COVID-19 traveling & performing during Pow Wow Season is impossible and dangerous. So, the Indigenous Community came up with a way share and participate through Facebook:

Social Distance Pow Wow

Roc Your Mocs

Traditional Native Moccasins. Tribe unspecified. Photo from pixabay.com.

First established in 2011, the worldwide Rock Your Mocs events calls for American Indians and Alaska Natives to wear their moccasins on November 15 as part of Native American Heritage Month. Watch the tag #RockYourMocs on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to see how people celebrate across the country.

Taja Blackhorn, a member of the Kahosadi People from southern Oregon, has engaged in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion outreach and education for more than 30 years, and has recently added Native Land Acknowledgements and Lunch and Learns for state agencies to her efforts.